The image of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that may come most easily to mind is one of expertly trained, highly professional classical musicians in formal attire performing with unanimity of purpose the great works of Beethoven and Shostakovich. That stands in contrast to the portrait painted by an attorney’s summary of findings in a sexual harassment investigation at the esteemed institution.
A top player, principal oboe Katherine Needleman, named another top player, concertmaster Jonathan Carney, in a charge of discrimination filed Sept. 14 against the BSO with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Needleman alleges that the orchestra has allowed a hostile work environment caused by Carney’s retaliation against her.
The two documents brim with details of unprofessional behavior inside the orchestra, onstage and off — propositioning in a hotel room and a women’s restroom, discussion of “pesones” (Spanish for nipples), making faces and mocking gestures during rehearsals or concerts.
The starting point of the case is one night in October 2005, when the BSO was on tour in Barcelona. Carney came to Needleman’s hotel room at 3:30 a.m. She let him in. He was interested in sex. Needleman declined. Both sides agree that nothing sexual or physical happened and that the incident lasted no more than 10 minutes.
When Needleman first raised the matter of the hotel room visit to management in 2006, an internal inquiry was launched, according to a recently concluded report by Melissa McGuire, chair of the Labor and Employment Law Section of the Maryland State Bar Association. McGuire was retained by the BSO to conduct an investigation after Needleman raised issues about Carney again early this year. McGuire interviewed 19 witnesses over several months in preparing a response to Needleman’s charges.
It was after the 2005 rebuff, Needleman asserts in her filing, that the troubles for her began and have lasted for 13 years. Her filing catalogs allegations against Carney: a lewd comment about her “pesones,” occasions when he blocked her way in stairways, and other ways the much taller violinist physically intimidated the oboist.
Carney disputes the claims.
“There were no physical or verbal altercations,” he said. “I have done everything I can to be professional.”
Still, the McGuire report found corroboration for some behavioral incidents Needleman raised that also surfaced in the EEOC complaint.
One allegedly occurred around 2010 when, according to a witness, Carney followed two female musicians into a restaurant restroom after a concert and asked them to “make out.” (Carney’s lawyer says he has located a second witness who disputes that story.)
Another corroborated incident involves Carney allegedly referring to a composition, Smetana’s opera “The Bartered Bride,” as “the battered broad” when he asked candidates to play a portion of the overture during a BSO audition.
“Can you imagine saying that when a woman is standing there?” Needleman said. “What does that say about him?”
Carney was advised by BSO management to undergo sensitivity training after that incident.
McGuire’s summary describes the restroom incident and “battered broad” comment as “unprofessional and distasteful,” but found they did not meet the “severe and pervasive” standard required under the law to define a hostile work environment.
In any orchestra, a concertmaster holds a major leadership role, its importance ranking just below that of the music director. The concertmaster is expected to be a first-rate musician, capable of playing the many prominent violin solos in the classical repertoire, as well as leading and continually honing the string section.
A principal oboist is likewise a major position requiring stellar technical and artistic skills. This instrument, too, frequently is called on to deliver important solo passages. The principal oboist also provides the A to which the whole orchestra tunes before playing.
Needleman has alleged in the EEOC complaint that Carney engaged in frequent disrespectful behavior toward her during the tuning process, “smirking and making faces at people,” actions that contributed to the hostile environment she says she experienced.
“I cannot see any other reason for this than that I refused to have sex with him,” Needleman said.
The McGuire report states that “most witnesses denied any of this alleged behavior” involving tuning, but that others described Carney’s behavior as “not collegial” and showing “a lack of respect.”
Carney said that the he had often discussed tuning issues with BSO music director Marin Alsop.
“She has been saying that the orchestra tunes sharp, and I just asked the orchestra to tune more carefully,” Carney said. “I wasn’t criticizing Katherine.” (Alsop declined to comment for this article.)
The McGuire report concluded that Carney’s actions did not meet the definition of “retaliatory” under the law.
Needleman, who kept a multi-year log of incidents involving Carney, filed her charge with the EEOC against the BSO for allowing the hostile conditions she described. She took the action the day after reading the McGuire report.
“I was inspired by all the other women coming forward,” Needleman said, referring to sexual harassment cases elsewhere.
The oboist considers three BSO reports — an initial one in 2006, two this year by an outside human resources consultant and then McGuire, all basically reaching the same conclusions — to be biased.
“They’ve just tried to discredit me,” Needleman said.
The BSO is not the only classical music ensemble finding itself in the spotlight during the #MeToo era.
The Metropolitan Opera fired its longtime music director, James Levine, for sexual misconduct earlier this year. After sexual abuse allegations surfaced against another eminent conductor, Charles Dutoit, several orchestras severed longstanding ties with him (though Russia’s famed St. Petersburg Philharmonic just signed him up as principal guest conductor).
The Cleveland Orchestra, which suspended its concertmaster last month due to allegations of sexual assault, suspended a trombonist earlier this month after a harassment investigation.
And New York Philharmonic management is seeking to fire its principal oboist and associate principal trumpeter due to unspecified “misconduct” ( those firings are on hold at the request of the musicians’ union, pending more investigation).
“There is a history of tolerance for bad behavior and looking the other way, and orchestras, like any other sector, are not immune,” said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the New York-based League of American Orchestras.
Rosen said that the league has offered resources to member orchestras, which include the BSO, to help them improve policies and practices.
“I think there has been a heightened attention to the internal cultures of orchestras and a much greater investment in building healthy cultures for staff and musicians, creating a clear path forward for people to find recourse and to eliminate the threat of retaliation,” Rosen said.
Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant and author of Adaptistration, a daily blog about the orchestra business, also sees a potential good from the spate of controversies in the industry.
“I’m hopeful that this will bring out meaningful change,” McManus said. “The employer has to act like an employer and tell musicians that you can be the artist you want to be, but if you violate policy, you will be fired. People only act as badly as they’re allowed to act. And who wants to be in an organization where people behave like children?”
Despite the she-said-he-said allegations and tawdry tales in the air, the BSO has kept to its schedule of rehearsals and performances for the opening of the season, with Needleman and Carney participating as usual. But how things play out in the future is unclear.
“This whole thing is really detrimental to the orchestra in so many ways,” Carney said.
Needleman’s filing with the EEOC will result in an official notice of the formal charge being sent to the BSO shortly. There is a process for the employer to answer the charges and the person filing the complaint to respond. Both parties may be asked to enter a mediation program.
The EEOC may decide to conduct an investigation, which could take about 10 months. If the investigation determines that the law has been violated, a voluntary settlement with the employer will be sought. If that is unsuccessful, the case may be pursued in court. If the commission decides no law has been violated, the person filing the complaint retains the right to sue in court.